This is the sermon I preached in St Mary’s on 21st May 2017. I offer it to the newsletter not because I expect everyone to agree with me, but because I hope it stimulates to think carefully about the forthcoming General Election. A number of people commented after the service that they found it a helpful contribution; I hope by reading it – and it doesn’t read as easily to me as it sounded when I preached it – you may find it equally helpful.
Canon Simon Butler
Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands an account of the hope that is in in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence (1 Peter 3:15-16a).
What I have to say today should not be considered a party-political broadcast.
Last week, it was the Archbishops of Canterbury and York; this week it was the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales. Christian leaders are all making some attempt to speak into the ongoing General Election campaign, to try and say something about how faith in Jesus Christ addresses the political and social issues we face as a country. This seems perfectly sensible and, while a mix of religion and politics can sometimes make a rather too heady brew, so can a complete separation. We have no desire to become like Iran or possibly even France in our mix or separation of religion and politics. Nevertheless there is no doubt that part of our Christian concern and duty is to seek the wellbeing of all people, which should be justification enough for entering into the political debates of our country. Or, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu rather more pithily put it, “when people say that religion and politics shouldn’t mix, I don’t know which Bible they are reading.”
So I dare to say this morning that I think this is possibly the most depressing of all the General Elections of my adult life. Of course, it is a nakedly political decision, with a reasonably popular – or at least new – Prime Minister betting that she can use her personal popularity to gain advantage over a moribund, divided Opposition and especially a Leader of the Opposition with little appeal outside his metropolitan admirers. A survey of modern election manifestos since the 1979 election campaign reveals that the name Theresa May appears three times as many times as any political leader’s name has appeared in any party’s manifesto since then. Election addresses prefer to use the words “Theresa May’s
Team” rather than The Conservative Party. Such political opportunism is itself depressing.
But what concerns me as a Christian, and as a Christian leader rather depresses me, is that politics is less about ideas and more about marketing. Gone is the overreaching vision, the campaign of ideas; now our retail politics is reduced to a popularity competition and voting decisions based on “what’s in it for me.” That Jeremy Corbyn, a most principled man and admired for that by even his detractors, that he stands out as the one senior politician who seems to buck that trend, and that he is likely to lose heavily based on his perceived lack of leadership more than any true consideration of the principles he holds to, only serves to underline the cause of depression. There is an episode of the West Wing, which along with the Scriptures is the source of my belief in the importance of vision, where President Bartlet has to appoint a Supreme Court judge; rather than just appoint a middling, safe judge, he manoeuvres to appoint two judges, one a radical libertarian conservative and the other a
passionate liberal. Thus a debate about ideas is forged. Surely this is what politics should be, and could be, about?
So I think the intervention of the Anglican Archbishops and the Catholic Bishops is a most welcome one, for Christian political vision is based on something more solid that the faddish views of focus groups or the passing trends of the moment. Christian moral and therefore political vision holds in its heart ideas of the common good – where individual and community needs are both honoured, where economics starts from a sense of God’s abundance and enough for all, rather than the myth of scarcity where it is the survival of the fittest, and where personal freedom and personal responsibility are both honoured. That of course does not in and of itself map onto the manifesto of any one party – such trends and
positions can be honoured within and beyond political parties, as long as they do not deny the humanity of all people. It is in the spirit of that commitment to humanity that a group of church leaders will be meeting Jane Ellison this week to discuss our concerns about refugees.
One of the chief reasons for our rather depressing political landscape at the moment is the lack of hope and maybe our current transition into Brexit, which, while hopeful for many in our country (most of them true not in Wandsworth), is not yet sufficiently clear in its implications to merit more than uncertainty.
We need more hope. True, the word hope itself can easily become a political football, and savvy politicians have historically capitalised on it when the appetite for change, for something better, has been the mood of the nation. But what these politicians – from Margaret Thatcher to Barack Obama – have sensed is that hope is in essence a future looking virtue. “Things can only get better,” may have been the soundtrack of the 1997
General Election, but if you leave out the ‘only’, ‘things can get better’ has motivated many of us to action, be it political campaigning or fundraising for Christian Aid.
For Christians, hope though has a deeper resonance and power than simply optimistic belief in progress or, as we now know it to be the theological driver of Donald Trump, The Power of Positive Thinking1. It’s far more than wishing for the best. Hope is a future-looking virtue,
not because of an idealistic belief in progress, but because of a singular event in the past.
Our hope for the future is based on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. So when St Peter wrote the words that began this sermon, “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands an account of the hope that is in in you;”, he was encouraging Christians facing some form of persecution or mockery for their faith, to stand firm in the face of the future, because of the hope that they had courtesy of the empty tomb of Jesus. So, in Pilgrim’s Progress, it is Hopeful who comforts Christian in Doubtful Castle, because of the promise of God made to Christian in Jesus Christ.
Christian hope is one of the most significant moral virtues we can bring to the political debate. It reminds us – and our politicians – that we are part of a bigger story, and that the promises we make should be idealistic but not utopian. The problem we have today is that we have lost that sense of the bigger story. We have become to believe that we – however we define that we – are the bigger story and that the rest of the world – other people, foreigners, the rich, the poor, even the planet itself – exist only in the light of that ‘we’.
Politicians, to be fair to them, seek to change the world in the midst of that reality and are as subject to its whims as anyone else. The best of them, and I happen to believe that we have some of the best, most honourable politicians in the world, are seeking to change the story, to see society in the context of the bigger picture. As Christians, whether we find our political vision in left, right or centre, we are invited to work with them in that shift from managing the world as it is to shaping the world as it should be.
The Christian virtue of hope is not a blueprint or a manifesto; it is a way of seeing the world which needs shape our politics as much as it shapes our theology. It comes from the assurance that Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, rules this world in love and places us in it to make that love real. That love is expressed in mercy, peace, justice, compassion, forgiveness and, yes, when properly understood, in prosperity too. In a period of economic uncertainty, political opportunism and a prevailing culture of managing the world as it is rather than shaping the world as it could be, Christian witness in society and in politics needs to be grounded in hope. And for those of us who find our place in society in work, in business or in culture, our task is not only to pray for such vision but to do all that we can, armed with a vision of hope and confident trust in the risen Lord Jesus, to make such a hopeful world real.
As we vote and as we involve ourselves in politics, as I hope we do, let us always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands an account of the hope that is in in you;”
Because, God knows, our world needs hope. Amen.